In defence of charities (again)

There was another round of charity bashing this weekend with the publication of a report by the True and Fair Foundation into how charities manage their finances. The point of the piece was that, in the view of the report’s authors, charities are directing a lower proportion of their total expenditure towards the mission or the service delivery of their organisation than they ought to be.


Despite concerted attempts by NCVO and others to highlight that the report contained inaccuracies and that the conclusions drawn from the data were misleading, the Foundation went ahead and published the report. This was then gleefully seized upon by The Telegraph, The Mail and The Sun as further evidence that, despite what you may have learned through your own experience, far from being a force for good in our fractured society, charities (big ones especially) are A BAD THING.


As fundraisers we spend a lot of time considering people’s motivations because we know that if we can understand why people give, with the right kind of acknowledgement, support and stewardship, we can encourage them to support again and to support in different ways too.


An examination of the motives of the newspapers leads to an alarming conclusion: the editors strongly believe that their readers are interested in the BAD CHARITIES narrative they are peddling and so, on slow news days, this is one of the stories they reach for. Whipping up outrage about the scale and professionalism of the voluntary sector is now a reliable filler and is considered strong enough to be a front page lead.


The motives of the anti-charity brigade at Westminster probably work along broadly similar lines: the working thesis is that there is concern in their constituencies about the behaviour of charities and there is an opportunity to align a personal prejudice against aspects of the modern charity world from a potentially vote-winning, charity-bashing platform.


The current Chair of the Charity Commission appears to be launching a sustained attack from within – and much of this is to do with his desire to distance the Commission as a regulator (policeman) of the sector, rather than the supportive guide role it has played for many years.


The motives of Gina Miller of the Fair and True Foundation, in launching her broadsides against charities are probably harder to guess, (there was an attack on careerist fundraisers a few years ago, so this is not a one-off). A charitable view would be that she believes in what she is saying and doing in ‘calling charities to account’, although her refusal to engage on the facts of the case despite a genuine attempt from NCVO to facilitate a discussion would lead to the conclusion that she has decided on an agenda and is determined to make the facts fit the argument. This feels more about Ms Miller’s personal profile than anything else to me, though I’m sure it’s more complicated than that…


What I do know is that this is doing charities no good at all. There is some evidence that the negative reporting is starting to have some impact on trust and confidence levels generally, though this is perhaps not as significant as may have been expected given the annus horibilis we have endured. I certainly agree with NCVO that the timing of The Telegraph story (followed by the other papers) is very unhelpful during peak Christmas Appeal season for most charities.


But I am pleased to see the response from sector bodies, organisations, journalists covering the voluntary sector and charity staff (fundraisers chief among them), to this latest – largely unfounded – attack on our good name.


I’ve heard of fundraisers engaging with charity supporters on social media to put the side of the story and to debunk some of the misleading reporting. I think we all need to stand up for our sector and have those conversations; down the pub, at dinner parties, on facebook and twitter and wherever they arise. There is a small but vocal minority who have shown themselves to be unusually interested in finding negative stories about charity (and making them up if they can’t find them). We need to mobilise our sector bodies and our PR teams to rebut the nonsense and defend our working practices and our good names whilst dealing robustly with legitimate criticism too. And we should do this for the sake of our staff teams (and fundraising teams especially) and – most importantly – we should do this on behalf of those we exist to help. We have a role as individuals to help our friends and families to understand the crucial and increasingly multi-faceted charities play in today’s society. If we don’t defend ourselves then who will?


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